Gambling started Wednesday afternoon at the Rocky Gap Casino Resort right after the state approved the opening of its fourth casino, one that Western Maryland leaders hope will lure not only gamblers but also their families to a region eager for more tourist dollars.
"It's open and jamming," said Scott Just, the general manager of the resort near Cumberland. "There's a couple hundred people in there. They were pressing up against the ropes."
The $35 million casino, located in what was the lakeside golf resort's conference center, will be open around the clock. The casino is expected to breathe new life into what was a troubled state-owned resort that struggled to attract visitors and pay its bills.
Evitts Resort, a subsidiary of Minnesota-based Lakes Entertainment, acquired Rocky Gap last summer, for far less than the state paid to build it, promising to construct a casino there and upgrade the resort.
The casino opened Wednesday with 558 slot machines and 10 table games, including blackjack, roulette, craps, Mississippi stud poker and three-card poker.
Local business and political leaders — some of whom say they never gamble —hope the facility will boost tourism by drawing visitors to such nearby attractions as the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, which transports passengers using a vintage steam engine. Cumberland's tourism campaigns focus largely on the C&O Canal and the region's railroad history.
The casino owners "realize they need to make it a family destination," said Mike McKay, president of the Allegany County Board of County Commissioners.
The key will be how long gamblers stick around and whether they leave the resort — which features a Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course. Evitts has upgraded the property's lobby and renovated rooms. The resort is also building a new, slightly larger conference center it hopes to complete by November.
"We plan on integrating into the community," Just said. "We have a lot of fantastic amenities. But for those staying a few days, he said, they may want to eat at local restaurants in town" or visit tourist sites.
Just said the casino's core market consists of people within an hour's drive, but "our outer core is certainly 200 miles plus," a radius that encompasses Baltimore, Washington and Pittsburgh.
Rocky Gap is the state's third casino to offer table games, joining Maryland Live Casino in Anne Arundel County and Hollywood Casino Perryville in Cecil County.
Maryland's casinos, including the Casino at Ocean Downs in Worcester County, brought in $58.9 million in revenue in April.
Future casinos are planned for Baltimore and Prince George's County.
Last year, Evitts closed a deal to acquire Rocky Gap, just off Interstate 68, from the Maryland Economic Development Corp. The state spent $54 million to create the golf resort and conference center in hopes of attracting tourists to Western Maryland and spurring economic development there. But the resort, which opened in 1998, never gained traction as a destination, losing millions of dollars and struggling to pay off the debt owed to bondholders.
"It was a burden on the taxpayers," said Stuart Czapski, executive director of the Allegany County Chamber of Commerce. "Seeing the finished product now, they're doing it right. They've been very good to the community. They've been hiring locals."
The resort employs about 350 workers full-time, and 500 total.
"It's a beautiful place," Czapski said. "I'm not a casino aficionado. But they've kept a natural feel for the lodge. It was built to have that rustic lodge look to blend in with the lake and state park."
Market conditions forced Evitts to scale down its plans from about 850 slot machines to 558.
"I definitely was disappointed that a $65 million project got scaled back," McKay said. "But being a business owner myself, it just makes common sense. Instead of 'Build it and they will come,' it's 'Build it and let's make it profitable.' And then they can build more."
McKay and Czapski said the casino could create a market for new hotels to open in the region.